By Victoria Arthur
Statehouse Correspondent for Indiana’s Catholic Newspapers
Catholics concerned about the environment are tracking a number of bills at the Indiana Statehouse through the lens of “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” the groundbreaking encyclical by Pope Francis that continues to influence the landscape nearly six years after its release.
Legislation that would repeal all of Indiana’s protections for state-regulated wetlands is a particular cause for alarm, according to members of the Creation Care Commission of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Senate Bill 389, which passed the Senate on a 29-19 vote and is now awaiting action in the Indiana House of Representatives, would eliminate safeguards for up to 90 percent of the state’s wetlands.
Only about 10 percent of Indiana’s wetlands – those connected to a navigable body of water, such as a lake or a river – fall under federal jurisdiction and would remain unaffected. The rest, known as isolated wetlands, are under state control and would become subject to development without any permit process if Senate Bill 389 were to become law.
“This is a giant step backwards,” said Benedictine Sister Sheila Marie Fitzpatrick, one of the founding members of the Creation Care Commission and a member of Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, Ind. “We need to do a lot more education and build awareness among all constituents to help people realize the value of wetlands.”
Education and advocacy are at the root of the Creation Care Commission, which was formed in 2015 in response to the pope’s encyclical. In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis calls for dialogue and swift action worldwide to protect the environment, curb irresponsible development, and respect God’s creation.
“One of the main points of ‘Laudato Si’’ is that everything is connected,” said Sister Sheila, who holds a degree in chemistry from the University of Illinois and serves as director of facilities for the Benedict Inn Retreat and Conference Center in Beech Grove. “When we look at something like an isolated wetland, it may seem insignificant; but it’s really so connected to everything we hold dear – from the wildlife that lives there to the water that’s filtrated and purified through it.
“So many things are dependent upon a strong ecosystem, and wetlands are significant pieces of that.”
Senate Bill 389 is opposed by more than 50 environmental and conservation organizations, as well as the Indiana Catholic Conference.
“The Church’s rich tradition of environmental stewardship and care for creation form the basis of our opposition to this bill,” said Alexander Mingus, associate director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “Wetlands are deeply important ecological resources that protect our communities from flooding, help ensure the quality of our drinking water and provide a necessary home for countless species. We have to recognize how necessary wetlands are for our human flourishing and for the flourishing of all creation.”
The ICC urges Catholics to reach out to their elected representatives in the House to oppose the bill.
By contrast, another environmental bill at the Statehouse has received unanimous support by the ICC and other advocates. Senate Bill 373, Carbon Credit Programs, would offer financial incentives to farmers to manage their lands in environmentally responsible ways.
The legislation would allow Indiana to join other states that operate in the carbon “market,” which involves companies across the nation seeking to reduce their carbon footprint and thereby curb global warming. These companies offset their environmental impacts by paying private farmers and landowners to preserve trees and conserve carbon in the soil, among other methods of “sequestering” carbon dioxide.
Senate Bill 373 awaits further action at the Statehouse following its initial committee passage. U.S. Senator Mike Braun of Indiana is proposing similar legislation at the federal level.
“This is a very reasonable step in addressing the causes of climate change and one that has broad bipartisan support,” Mingus said.
Members of the Archdiocese’s Creation Care Commission are equally enthusiastic about Senate Bill 373.
“This bill encourages preservation of private woodlands as well as ways for farmers to not depend on chemical treatments so much,” said Joe Shierling, a member of the commission who grew up on a farm in Randolph County.
Members of his family still own the 70-acre parcel of land, consisting of 20 acres of forest and 50 acres of farmland rented to a local farmer. Shierling said he and his family encourage the farmer to adopt natural practices that promote the preservation of carbon, such as planting cover crops in the winter to increase nutrients in the soil.
“Considering what’s going forward in the Senate with the wetlands bill, it’s encouraging that (legislators) are looking positively at something that protects forests and looks at a different way of farming,” said Shierling, who spent an entire career working for the State of Indiana in various capacities.
He and other advocates, including the ICC, also support Senate Bill 367 and House Bill 1469, which would require coal companies to properly dispose of coal ash and other residuals, thereby protecting Indiana’s waterways.
For guidance in this and in everything related to the environment, Shierling looks toward a long history of Catholic social teaching on caring for the earth, which Pope Francis distilled in his revolutionary encyclical.
“‘Laudato Si’ is so important to me because it calls on each person in the world to look at our own lives and how we can lessen our negative effects on the environment,” said Shierling, a convert to Catholicism who has been a member of SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral Parish in Indianapolis for more than 30 years. “We all have a role to play.”
To follow priority legislation of the ICC, visit www.indianacc.org. This website includes access to I-CAN, the Indiana Catholic Action Network, which offers the Church’s position on key issues. Those who sign up for I-CAN receive alerts on legislation moving forward and ways to contact their elected representatives.
To learn more about the work of the Creation Care Commission of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, visit www.ourcommonhome.org.